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War Widows: Ex Gratia Pension Payment

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Harlech on 18 May 2023 (HL Deb col 367), what plans they have to ensure that War Widows receive the ex gratia pension payment announced in that answer.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I declare an interest as vice-president of the War Widows’ Association.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. The Government continue to recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country, and we remain sympathetic to those widows and widowers who forfeited pensions under historic rules because they remarried or cohabited. In acknowledgement of this, the war widows recognition payment scheme was launched on 16 October 2023. I am pleased to say that, so far, 190 individuals have made a successful application, with payments having begun in January 2024.

I thank the noble Lord, but despite his Answer, I wonder whether he is aware that there is huge anger among many war widows because of the last-minute eligibility criteria imposed on this recognition payment. Last May, the Government finally agreed that all war widows deserved special consideration under the Armed Forces covenant; now, they appear to have gone back on their word. Does the noble Lord the Minister realise that widows whose partners died as a result of service and who remarried after 2000 have been excluded from this payment? I am talking about war widows from the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. Will the Government now make it right?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work that the noble Baroness has done campaigning in this area. Some of the applications for the award have been rejected, and I am happy to share the statistics with the House: 72 individuals have not been accepted for an award. However, the Ministry of Defence denies that the eligibility criteria have changed: 49 of those were already in receipt of a financial award for their bereavement; 10 are eligible for their war widow’s pension to be reinstated due to no longer being in a relationship that led to the original forfeiture; and 13 have had their initial claim rejected because of either insufficient evidence or because their partner sadly passed away from a non-service attributable death.

My Lords, I too declare an interest as a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. We were so hopeful that the war widows who had missed out would at last have their cases sympathetically solved, but following on from my noble friend’s Question, it appears that it was decided late in the day that the ex gratia payment would not be for all those who forfeited their war widow’s pension but for those who forfeited an attributable pension before 2000, which is nothing to do with the war pensions scheme. Under this new scheme, the Minister has told us how many widows have benefited; can he say, given how canny the MoD is with any money for widows, how much money it has actually paid out to date?

I understand what the noble Baroness is asking, but my mental arithmetic is not good enough to multiply the ex gratia payment amount by the number of awards paid out, so I will write to her.

My Lords, just briefly, how much is this costing, given how much we are actually going to be giving to these poor people?

I think my previous answer addresses the point raised by my noble friend, and I will make sure that he receives a copy of that letter too.

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Minister read the recent excellent publication of the War Widows’ Association called Courage? If he has not, I suggest he does because then he will know the answers that he needs to give to the war widows. They are very complicated arrangements, and I do not sense that the widows are given proactive advice by the Ministry of Defence or the Veterans Agency. I believe that would be extremely helpful if it happened.

The noble and gallant Lord raises an important point of communication. I encourage any war widows who believe that they are eligible for this claim who have not yet already claimed to access the application form, which is available from GOV.UK or to call Veterans UK. For the benefit of the House and any war widows watching, I will outline now the eligibility criteria for payments:

“The eligibility criteria for the scheme are that the claimant … forfeited their entitlement to a service attributable survivor’s pension and/or a pension in accordance with the rules of the War Pension Scheme prior to 2015 for the death of a member of the UK Armed Forces and … has not had either pension restored because they are still in a relationship”.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the War Widows’ Association. I have been following this very closely and I must tell my noble friend that we are wholly dissatisfied with this latest turn of events. Does he realise that this question of the attributable pension making war widows ineligible was never raised specifically with the many deputations to Ministers? It was certainly never raised with me. It appears simply to be a last-minute attempt to claw back some money that is rightfully theirs. I call this, at best, mean-spirited.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the tireless campaigning that my noble friend has done on behalf of war widows. I appreciate that this is difficult, but the eligibility criteria were discussed with the War Widows’ Association from the inception of the scheme. I have been assured by officials from the Ministry of Defence that at no point have the eligibility criteria changed.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister may think that war widows and others spend their lives watching; I suspect that most do not. I seem to recall that, last time this issue came up, I asked whether His Majesty’s Government could inform everybody who they thought was eligible about eligibility, not request people to go online. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that they do the right thing by all of these widows, including ensuring eligibility as they expected it to be?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. We do need people to apply because, in line with legislation, once an individual is no longer in receipt of payments from the MoD, the MoD will not update its records on an ongoing basis. Therefore, crucial information such as their address, bank details and surname may not be current. The information requested on the application will enable the MoD to cross-check with the records that it holds and verify an applicant’s eligibility.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord the Minister finds himself personally in considerable difficulty seeking to defend this position— I realise that he could not possibly comment—but why on earth do the Government insist on continually painting themselves into morally indefensible bureaucratic corners?

My Lords, there is just a fraction of time left. Would my noble friend be kind enough to confirm to the House that, in parliamentary terms, there is no such person as a “noble Minister”?

My noble friend strays somewhat outside the scope of this Question, but he is, of course, absolutely right.

My Lords, I first take the opportunity to thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley and Lady Fookes, for their tireless campaigning on behalf of the disenfranchised war widows. Their work is inspiring. Given the answers that the Minister has given us today, when will he meet with the War Widows’ Association and apologise?

I have not actually received an invitation from the War Widows’ Association. However, should such an invitation be forthcoming, I would be only too delighted to meet with them.